Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nick Ripatrazone's Sacramental Vision

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Nick Ripatrazone, author of Good People (Foxhead Books), explores his awe of words.

In his brief essay, “In Awe of Words,” John Steinbeck writes “The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.”

I agree that the act of writing requires significant awe for words. Awe is not equivalent to innocence, but they are not exclusive. When asked what the word "religious" meant to her, poet Denise Levertov said it was "the impulse to kneel in wonder . . . the impulse to kiss the ground . . . the sense of awe.” Like Levertov, I am a Catholic, and think a sacramental vision of the world means that even the most profane and pungent words carry some residual awe. The same goes for people. By titling a story collection Good People, and admitting that the characters contained within do very bad things, I am dissociating action from actor. That might sound like a generous theology, but if I am truly in awe of words, I am not doing my characters any undue favors; I am simply giving them the freedom and power to organically evolve.

That freedom is an action of awe. My awe for words is not idolatry; it is a recognition that the finest and foulest stories in English must choose from the same 26 letters. Like Steinbeck, I think awe is connected to a willingness to be surprised. Our surrounding world can be painfully prosaic. We can find thousands of things to bemoan. These are failures of perspective; of spirit, perhaps, as William Faulkner claimed. Failures of sight and sense.

Although it is often mentioned in connection with poetry—think of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Spring”: “What is all this juice and all this joy?”—I think the short story is the perfect form for awe. Sonnets are made for questions and answers, and sestinas for recursivity. Essays are bred for inquiry. Short stories tend to lean forward. They end almost as quickly as they begin. And, if crafted well, they open many doors fully but leave others only cracked.
Indelibly awesome: "they is" thrice

I think of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” which begins as sardonic as they come, gets absolutely violent, but ends on such a perfect note, with a boy’s misspoken words: “they is, they is, they is.” Catholics haven’t cornered the market on awe, but Wolff—writing about the work of fellow Catholic Andre Dubus—said “the quotidian and the spiritual don’t exist on different planes, but infuse each other... ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things.” Of course awe can lead to sentimentality. Devotion and dogma are best left for the cold wood of pews and the privacy of hearts. Faith works much better on the page. Faith is pliable, imperfect, a work of passion. Like awe, faith requires a good deal of fear. I don’t trust a story that I’m writing unless I am unsettled by the decisions of the characters. I need to offer them the path to a bad place, and then, once there, they can remain or seek resolution.

Awe is what suffuses those characters with the sense of mystery necessary for fiction; it is what makes me treat my characters with care, even if I’ve created situations where they might suffer. That paradox is a necessary one in Catholic theology, and is equally applicable to fiction. If a story draft feels like cardboard; if my characters talk and live toward theses, then I have failed to see the world with awe. I have fallen for the cynicism of reduction. But the beautiful thing about fiction—and life—is that there is always time for a second, third, and tenth draft.